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NFL playoffs: Previewing the divisional round

NEW ORLEANS, LA - NOVEMBER 18: Drew Brees #9 of the New Orleans Saints calls a play at the line of scrimmage during a game against the Philadelphia Eagles at Mercedes-Benz Superdome on November 18, 2018 in New Orleans, Louisiana. The Saints defeated the Eagles 48-7. (Photo by Wesley Hitt/Getty Images)

by Andrew Pasquini – Sports 1140 KHTK

Eight teams remain after a wild card weekend that featured the Colts defeating the Texans, the Cowboys stopping the Seahawks run game, the Chargers solving Lamar Jackson, and the Eagles getting past the Bears thanks to a blocked kick.

Here’s a preview of the four divisional games:

Indianapolis Colts at Kansas City Chiefs (-5.5)

Saturday at 1:35pm

TV: NBC

Radio: Sports 1140 KHTK

The Colts are coming off what may have been the most impressive win of wild card weekend, defeating the Houston Texans 21-7. Andrew Luck threw for two touchdowns and 222 yards while Marlon Mack totaled 148 yards and a touchdown on 24 carries.

The Colts defense was the story, sacking Deshaun Watson three times and allowing just 105 rushing yards and 322 total yards to a Texans offense that averaged 362.6 yards per game and scored 25.1 points per game.

The Colts now face the Kansas City Chiefs who had the top-ranked offense in the league. The Chiefs offense is led by second-year quarterback Patrick Mahomes who threw for 50 touchdown passes and 5,097 yards over the regular season. Saturday will be the first postseason game of Mahomes career and the postseason can prove to have an impact on young quarterbacks and the jury is still out on whether the postseason will change his level of efficiency.

The Indianapolis defense will face a tall task in Mahomes but finished with a top-ten defense. Led by all-pro linebacker Darius Leonard, the Colts defense allowed just 21.5 points per game. In their last 11 games, the Colts defense has held opposing teams under 14 points five times and have been a large part of the Colts winning 10 of those 11 games.

As good as the Chiefs offense has been, their defense has struggled and the Colts might be able to move the ball on them. The Chiefs defense has allowed 26.3 points per game and has especially struggled against the pass allowing 273.4 yards per game via the pass, which was second-worst in the league.

While the Chiefs have the home-field advantage Saturday, playing at Arrowhead Stadium might not actually be an advantage for Kansas City. The Chiefs haven’t won a home playoff game since January 8, 1994 when Joe Montana led the Chiefs to a 27-24 victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers. As a matter of fact, the Colts have as many playoff wins at Arrowhead Stadium as the Chiefs do (2).

Prediction: Indianapolis over Kansas City

Dallas Cowboys at Los Angeles Rams (-7)

Saturday at 5:15pm

TV: FOX

This game will be won inside the trenches, more specifically in the battle between the Cowboys offensive line and the Rams defensive line.

The Cowboys offensive line has had an off year protecting Dak Prescott, allowing the third-year quarterback to be sacked 56 times. In his first two seasons combined, Prescott was sacked a total of 57 times.

Dallas was successful in keeping Prescott clean in their wild card win against the Seahawks, allowing just one sack but the Rams are a different story. While the Rams only had 41 sacks as a team, good for 15th in the NFL, half of their sacks came from Aaron Donald who collected 20.5 sacks on the season. Ndamonkong Suh plays on the other side of Donald while he only had 4.5 sacks this season, he still can be a nightmare for opposing quarterbacks.

If the passing game fails for the Cowboys, they have a good insurance policy in Ezekiel Elliott. Elliott played well last week, rushing for a touchdown and 137 yards on 26 carries. He will get to face the 23rd-ranked rush defense in the Rams on Saturday. Los Angeles allowed at least 100 yards rushing in their last five games and 11 of their 16 games. Elliott led the league in rushing this season with 1,434 yards on a league-high 304 carries.

The Cowboys seventh-ranked defense will face their toughest task against the Rams second-ranked offense. The Cowboys held the Seahawks, who finished with the best running game in the league, to just 73 yards on the ground last week. Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll refused to abandon the run game last week, calling a run on 65% of their plays when they averaged just 3.04 yards per play compared to 8.63 on pass plays.

Rams head coach Sean McVay won’t allow that to happen with his offense. The Rams had the fifth-best passing attack and third-best rushing attack. With a quarterback like Jared Goff, a running back like Todd Gurley, and receivers like Robert Woods and Brandin Cooks, McVay will be able to keep a balanced offensive gameplan against a tough Dallas defense, unlike Seattle last week.

Prediction: Los Angeles over Dallas

Los Angeles Chargers at New England Patriots (-4)

Sunday at 10:05am

TV: CBS

Radio: Sports 1140 KHTK

Philip Rivers is 1-7 in his career against the New England Patriots including the postseason. The one win came in 2008 when the Chargers defeated the Patriots 30-10. Rivers lone win against the Patriots came against Matt Cassell after Tom Brady missed the entire 2008 season due to a torn ACL, which means Rivers is 0-5 against Brady in the regular season and 0-2 in the postseason.

While Rivers has struggled against the Patriots, this Chargers team could be the one to reverse his luck. The 37-year-old quarterback is coming off what could be the best season of his career, throwing for 32 touchdowns, 4,308 yards, and a career-high 105.5 passer rating. The Chargers had the 11th-best offense in the league this season, averaging 372.6 yards per game.

Rivers in the midst in one of his best seasons, Brady is having his worst season since 2013, even though he’s had a solid season. His 29 touchdowns are the fewest he’s thrown since 2013 and the 11 interceptions are the most he’s thrown since 2013 as well. Even with Brady not playing to the expected level, the Patriots have been able to rely on a consistent run game behind Sony Michel and James White. The two running backs combined for 1,326 yards and 11 touchdowns while being the two feature backs in the fifth-best run game in the NFL.

Two of the bigger numbers to look at in this game are 8-0 and 7-1. The Patriots finished the season with an 8-0 home record and have outscored opposing teams by 130 points at Gillette Stadium. The Chargers have outscored opponents by 69 points on the road. Their lone loss on the road was in Los Angeles against the Rams where they lost 35-23. Outside of Los Angeles, the Chargers are 7-0 with a +81 point differential.

What could give the Patriots more of an advantage Sunday is Mother Nature. The weather in Foxboro, Massachusetts for Sunday is going to be cold with a high of 29 degrees and a low of 17. Cold weather usually doesn’t favor west coast teams and the Patriots have plenty of postseason moments in the cold Foxboro weather.

Prediction: Los Angeles over New England

Philadelphia Eagles at New Orleans Saints (-8)

Sunday at 1:40pm

TV: FOX

Radio: Sports 1140 KHTK

Carson Wentz started for the Eagles when these two teams met in Week 11. Wentz threw for only 139 yards and three interceptions in the Eagles 48-7 loss to the Saints. Wentz would go down with his back injury three weeks later and insert postseason hero Nick Foles.

Foles postseason success continued last week as the Eagles defeated the Chicago Bears 16-15 thanks in part to a blocked field goal late in the fourth quarter to clinch the victory for Philadelphia. Foles threw for 266, two touchdowns, and two interceptions while extending his playoff win streak to four games. In those four games, Foles has thrown for eight touchdowns, one interception, and 1,237 yards. The Super Bowl LII MVP looks to continue his hot postseason play on Sunday, and while it’s a mystery as to why he plays so well in the postseason, it has gotten to a point where it shouldn’t be.

There’s no mystery on the other side with Saints quarterback Drew Brees. Brees is coming off an MVP-quality season where he threw for 3,992 yards and 32 touchdowns, leading the Saints to a 13-3 record. He shredded the Eagles defense for 363 yards and four touchdowns in their Week 11 win. Don’t expect Sunday to be much different as Brees gets a second game against an Eagles defense that allowed the third-most passing yards per game.

Tre’Quan Smith was Brees’ favorite target in their last matchup against Philadelphia but expect him to look towards Michael Thomas on Sunday. Thomas finished the season with 125 receptions for 1,405 yards and nine touchdowns. The Eagles might have the Foles postseason magic going again but that magic is going to run out if their secondary can’t stop Brees.

Predition: New Orleans over Philadelphia